STEM And The Liberal Arts

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group in Washington, D.C. that is attempting to hold the feet of colleges and universities to the fire as far as academic core requirements are concerned, recently awarded a prize to the President of Purdue University, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.  The interesting thing about this is that Purdue is primarily an engineering school — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, if you will — and it is taking the lead in finding a place for the liberal arts at the heart of its academic program while insisting that young people at that university be guaranteed the right to hear conflicting points of view: none shall be turned away (as is increasingly the fashion today). This is interesting  because the liberal arts around the country are suffering from neglect and in many cases those who are charged with their defense are the most active in their dissolution.

In any event, at Purdue whatever reform or restoration that might take place is happening from the outside since, as Daniels points out, help from the inside, from among those faculty who actually teach the Liberal Arts, is not likely. Growing numbers of them are intent on bringing down the tradition and replacing it with the latest fad popular among those who would refashion Western Civilization to conform to their own idea of what it should be.

Daniels recently addressed a group at the A.C.T.A. and some of what he says is worth quoting because I have said many of the same things, but I am a small voice and many might think it is an isolated voice and also somewhat strained and even frantic in its concern for what I regard as some of the most important factors operating within — and without — the Halls of Ivy. Daniels, for example, reminds us that:

“The concerns most often voiced about the current university scene — conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authorial tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines — these and other problems are not unique to the liberal arts departments, but a host of surveys document that they are most common and most pronounced there.

“A monotonously one-sided view of the world  deprives students of the chance to hear and consider alternatives, and to weigh them for themselves in the process of what we call ‘critical thinking.’ . . .

“Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy has written, ‘Intellectual homogeneity weakens the academy’; he labelled the ad hominem attacks that homogeneous tribes often directed at dissenters as ‘the death knell of inquiry.’ Perhaps Princeton’s Keith Whittington has stated the point most concisely: ‘Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded.’ . . . .

“Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by self-perpetuating personal practices, has by now achieved come-tragic proportions. At one prestigious eastern university a friend recounts that, when he asked the history department chairman if he had any Republicans on his faculty, the answer was, ‘Have any? We don’t know any.'”

Another recipient of an award from the A.C.T.A., Paul S. Levy, joined Daniels in his concerns over the state of the colleges and universities today. He began by quoting Yeats and then commented as follows:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “This is what is happening on our campuses today: group think, suppression of speech, knee-jerk conclusions, a disdain for facts and proof, assumptions of guilt rather than innocence.”

What Daniels and Levy are referring to here is the alarming tendency — even among so-called “prestige” universities — to refuse certain speakers to be heard on campus because their political leaning is not in the proper direction coupled with the presence on campus of those within the faculty who refuse to allow conflicting points of view to be heard. Critical thinking is not at the top of the list for those who see as the only worthwhile academic goal the radical transformation of the university, and ultimately contemporary society itself, to fit the mold they hold dear to their hearts — a mold that is not all that clear either to  themselves or those who listen to them rant.

Now I have voiced many of these  concerns over the years in this blog, but I think it important that my readers hear another voice or two — and voices at the forefront of the fight to preserve what is precious and vital to the continued existence of what we call “civilization.” This is not right-wing clap trap. It is a serious situation within the academy that threatens our free society. And while the battles that go on within the walls of the Ivory Towers of academe might seem trivial and unimportant to those without those walls, it is not. As Levy maintains,

“. . .we are living the fact that what happens at American universities and colleges affects our entire society. We are at risk.”

Daniels elaborates:

“The worn out jokes about the stakes being so low in higher education debates do not apply to this one. In the struggle to define what a genuine liberal education should be, the stakes could hardly be greater, because it can be argued that we have never needed effective teaching in the liberal tradition more than today. Even the most gifted young people often emerge from today’s K-12 systems appallingly ignorant of either history or the workings of their own nation’s free institutions. Authoritarians of both Left and Right are eager to take advantage of their ignorance. There was a reason that the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire banned the teaching of literature and history throughout their realms.”

And, indeed, in Huxley’s brave new world literature, philosophy and history are ignored by the citizens as they blindly seek pleasure and follow the lead of those who would establish the latest trend. But that, of course, is fiction.



8 thoughts on “STEM And The Liberal Arts

  1. Dr. Curtler,
    My comments reflect over fifty years of study and teaching at colleges and universities; I do not presume to offer here a comprehensive comment on the entire system of higher education outside that experience.

    Those who decry the lack of diversity of ideas (these are NOT the same folks who decry a lack of diversity among students, faculty, or administrators) are essentially arguing that ideas other than theirs are not acceptable in the university. They argue that certain ideas “have no place” in the university, namely ideas that imply or espouse a critique of the existing social institutions and ideologies of our society.

    Much as they claim that they simply want equal time for their ideas, they pursue programs and policies that undermine an open discussion of ANY ideas This effort is often couched in discussion of jobs, job markets, marketable majors, practical education, and, as you rightly point out, STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Same things. Different days.

    Predictably, these critics tend to focus on unrepresentative examples and anecdotes at the individual level and ignore institutional realities. They will point to examples of what they consider left-wing or liberal excesses — like students protesting at a conservatives speech — and ignore the reality that the university as a whole is a fundamentally conservative institution. [I used to joke that changing a university curriculum is more difficult than moving a graveyard because, in the latter case, you need both the consent and the cooperation of those interred.]

    I recall numerous conversations over the years with those who proposed a quota on left-wingers (an undefined category) in humanities and social science departments — to achieve “balance”, of course. I would always ask them if there also should be quotas on right-wingers in business, economics, engineering and computer sciences – to achieve “balance”, of course. My question was usually met with glazed looks, mouths agape, and subsequent stuttering.

    As a person with long-standing leftist views, I have never attended or taught at a college or university where only left-wing ideas prevailed, though I grant such a thing is possible. To be frank, I have never known or worked in a department where a single set of ANY ideas prevailed — unless there was but one person in the department.

    Finally, I come to a point as obvious as it is important. It is the rare teacher who uses their class time as an opportunity to espouse their own political views. It does happen, but it seldom happens, and it is just as likely to be a conservative as a liberal point of view being espoused. Department chairs and administrators tend not to abide such behavior for very long, because, mostly, they just don’t want their phones to ring.

    With rare exceptions, the teachers I have met viewed their duty as teaching students HOW to think, not WHAT to think. This is both an ideal and a norm of among college and university faculty, in my experience. It is not a rare occurrence for faculty to discuss and compare a variety of intellectual views in their courses as part of their overview either of their own discipline or of larger social questions. This is their job, especially in the liberal arts. It is, quite literally, what they are employed to do.

    To presume that a classroom discussion of ideas is an endorsement of those ideas is nonsensically faulty reasoning — post hoc ergo propter hoc, as my undergraduate philosophy instructor was wont to say. Yet it is this very presumption that is at the heart of many critics of the liberal arts. Foolishness!

    Yet, foolishness is the order of the day and we are the worse for it.

    Regards and respects to all.

    Jerry Stark

    • You have been very lucky. Even at the university where I taught for many years the trend is toward homogeneity and restricted speaking is enforced — more so now than when I taught. There is an increasing tendency to discourage certain “types” of speakers and even thoughts. But the problem is nation-wide and it IS a problem. It”s not so much that the faculties are too liberal, but that they are intolerant. Indoctrination in any form is not acceptable and yet studies coupled with numerous complaints from students suggest this is becoming the norm. There have even been books written about the determination of faculty at the major universities (primarily) who comprise the radical left to eradicate traditional ways of teaching in order to make sure the university and ultimately society itself, is brought back to the left — radically changed. As I say, this is a national, not a local, problem.
      I regard myself as an intellectual conservative with left-leaning social and political views, but I see this as an ideological battle that can only undermine what I think the universities and colleges are supposed to do: help young people take charge of their own minds — as you have done. Things have changed since you were an undergraduate at Southwest, Jerry!

      • This is a terrific response and it helps a great deal to clarify basic disagreements. However, to take just this paragraph:”Those who decry the lack of diversity of ideas (these are NOT the same folks who decry a lack of diversity among students, faculty, or administrators) are essentially arguing that ideas other than theirs are not acceptable in the university. They argue that certain ideas “have no place” in the university, namely ideas that imply or espouse a critique of the existing social institutions and ideologies of our society.”
        I am one who complains endlessly about the lack of intellectual diversity while at the same time I recognize the need for cultural and social diversity as well. It is a question of priorities: educators should be concerned about the former before they worry about the latter. A well educated young person will realize that the world is not fair and there are hosts of people who have been chronically deprived of such things as justice! And I have NEVER said that ideas other than my own should never be allowed on the college campus. That would make me guilty of the same offenses I point to with others. ALL ideas “have a place” on the college campus where ideas are the teachers, not the faculty. And the ills of society need to be noted and discussed but not dwelt upon and made the focus of all discussion. For all its faults, our culture has many strengths: we require a balanced approach rather than an hysterical one designed to turn young people into disciples.

      • Though left-wing politically, I am very conservative intellectually and academically. To the extent that makes us similar, I am flattered.

        Perhaps I have been fortunate in the sense you describe. I know I have been very fortunate in my overall academic experience.Far more lucky than I deserve. And while I have not witnessed all the things you have seen, I certainly have met my share of damned fools.

        Even as a student, though I had yet to recognize it, I was a traditional academic liberal — as in Liberal Arts. I really did and still do believe in the -power and importance of being exposed to a substantial range of ideas and intellectual challenges.

        Whether it be from dogmatic politicos or vocational technocrats. the liberal arts tradition is on the retreat. That is the real tragedy.

        I take your point.

  2. Holy smoke, Hugh. It seems we are living as if in a fictional world politically and educationally also. I want to remember the little third-graders with whom I started my teaching carreer and think about the fun we had, the friends they became to each other, the colors and music in the room – not whether any of them increased in their STEM testing. But I suppose that the administrators were, even at that young age, focused on a very specific and narrow measurement of what happened in the classroom. Sigh.

    • I think administrators — and many faculty — get fixated on the process and forget what the outcomes are supposed to be. Or to put it plainly: they forget the purpose of education, which is to free young minds.

  3. Of course, I have very Mixed Feelings about this whole argument from my own experience of Higher Education, being a partial benefactor and complete victim of the same.

    The problem with Higher Education, in general, is that it is increasingly divorced from Every Day experience, isolated in some kind of hermetic vessel of pretended or scripted ‘learning’ and sought as an end in itself. Learning is NOT an end in itself, and never has been. To the degree that it becomes such, it is and must be Delusional.

    PRACTICE has been and ever will be the Standard of Learning applied, in Real Life, to the Tasks at hand, even or especially where it concerns the Psychology of Relationships (personal, business or state). Pragmatism is the cure here, if the Idea is some kind of Mastery over Chaos. Reason dictates, Rationalism responds to the Need.

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